Visitors to the Southwest and the Colorado Plateau often comment on the stunning, and sometimes strange, light effects they encounter. Commentator Scott Thybony has found that what lies beyond the visual experience can have an even greater impact. Here is his latest Canyon Commentary, A Scattering of Light.
The air held still as we hiked along a tributary of Grand Canyon. So still, a slight motion caught my eye. On the sandstone wall next to us, light rippled and shimmered as if alive. I studied it for a moment before realizing it was the reflection of a hidden water pocket on an overhanging cliff. Artist Shonto Begay once told me his first name came from the Navajo word for this optical effect, which led us to us talking about the paradox of light. In the visual world an object reveals itself by the light it reflects rather than by what it absorbs. “We know the water,” Shonto said, “by the light it is not.”
Knowledge of the physical world goes beyond appearances. A scientist and I were having a conversation after a week spent traveling through the canyon country. During the previous days he had shown a wide-ranging curiosity about the places we had visited, using his scientific knowledge to deepen his aesthetic appreciation. When he looked at a rock, he saw not only its form and color but the intricate web of its chemical composition. And he would stand mesmerized at sunset, seeing not only a red glow in the west but a scattering of light passing through the thicker lens of atmosphere. I believe he experienced the setting sun at the level of wavelengths and photons. As our talk drew to a close, he made a final point.
“There’s no mystery,” he said, “only light.”
But sometimes, light itself becomes a mystery. In the Grand Canyon normal perceptions undergo a curious reversal. I’ve watched the first light of day hit the highest rim and begin working down the cliff face. Then as night approached, I’ve waited for darkness to fill the deepest pockets before rising upward and covering the outer-most cliffs. It’s a land of sunfall and nightrise.
In 1880 Clarence Dutton rode horseback to the end of Point Sublime where an extraordinary landscape spread out below. The geologist faced a world so far beyond his experience he struggled to find the words to match it. In his official report, he filled an entire chapter with descriptive passages and finally gave up. “Here language fails and description becomes impossible,” he wrote. “. . . There are no concrete notions founded in experience upon which a conception of these color effects and optical delusions can be constructed and made intelligible. A perpetual glamour envelops the landscape.” Then Dutton added, “Things are not what they seem and the perceptions cannot tell us what they are.”
While working as a guide, I took a passenger with a deep passion for the Grand Canyon down the Colorado River. He had never seen it. We were floating through the Lower Gorge with a group of visually impaired. As we drifted below a rapid the passenger, who was totally blind, mentioned how he made a point of visiting the South Rim several times a year. This surprised me since the Canyon is such a stunning visual experience. I asked what kept drawing him back, and he described standing alone on the edge and just listening to the stillness. He could feel the vastness spreading out before him, and the experience of pure immensity was overwhelming.
The true heart of a place, he knew, lies beyond the light it reflects.